When Margaret Thatcher was elected in 1979, commercial videos were quite a new phenomenon. As with a lot of new technologies, even today, there is an element of fear surrounding the unknown and this was certainly the case with videos. The government had great concerns about the video content the general public were watching in the comfort of their home and it was put under a lot of scrutiny. The main concern was the unregulated, uncensored films people could pick up from local video rental shops. It was the gory and graphic horror films that were flying off the shelves and there was a mass panic that they would leave whoever watched them traumatised.
Thanks the Mary Whitehouse of the national viewers’ and listeners’ association, there is now a colloquial term for these films, ‘video nasties’. The Video Recordings Act of 1984 was brought in to impose stricter rules on the censorship of videos. With Cinemas, enforcing classification laws was easy in comparison because the stewards can prevent you going in to watch a film if you were obviously underage. What makes it more difficult with home entertainment mediums is that no one can regulate how old you are and as long as you have access to a copy of the film, no one can stop you from watching it. The Video Recordings Act hoped to help reduce the incidents of underage viewing and bring the decency and family values back to the British media.
There were 72 of these video nasties, including classics such as ‘The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’, ‘The Driller Killer’, ‘I Spit on your Grave’, ‘Last House on the Left’ and ‘Evil Dead’. Now, for today’s audiences, these films are not particularly shocking. They are more humorous than anything really because of their unconvincing acting and dated special effects. At the time, the wave of moral outrage actually created a certain attraction to these forbidden films and gave them infamy, as huge numbers of people would watch the films just to see what the big fuss was about.
The moral watchdogs kicked up such a fuss that the police began raiding video shops. They took away the nasty video cassettes and the tabloids kicked up a frenzy saying they were sinister and threatening movies, destroying the minds of the general public. If something could have been blamed on video nasties, it was. The main focus was on susceptible viewers such as the young, it was thought that the content of these films would corrupt them and increase the likelihood of them reproducing such horrifying scenes themselves. Perhaps along with their conservative nature, theories such as the Hypodermic Needle Theory instilled them with the desire to protect the next generation. Similar arguments are proposed against today’s graphic video games, such as Call of Duty and GTA.
It is funny to think that the films once deemed to be nasty are now mild in comparison to many mainstream horror films. Film and Game makers will always try to push the boundaries of what is deemed morally acceptable in order to attract audiences. This can be said for a recent film I encountered, ‘A Serbian Film’ , which is notorious for its gratuitous violence and strong sexual themes throughout. Having viewed it, I noticed how desensitised I have become from films with extremely violent content however this being said, I would not said I have ever experienced the urge to re-enact anything I have seen in this or similar films. I think it is more concerning that filmmakers can generate such twisted and distasteful story lines and that critics can deem these pieces to be art than anything else.
Video Nasties will always generate public interest, which is why they are made and every so often they can provide escapist entertainment from our mundane lives. Long live horror!